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What is Yellow Jaundice?

By D. Jeffress
Updated May 17, 2024
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Yellow jaundice is a common symptom of many different congenital and acquired diseases. It is characterized by a painless yellowing of the skin and the eyes. The yellow tint is a consequence of elevated levels of a substance called bilirubin in the bloodstream, which can occur for a variety of reasons. Children and adults can develop jaundice due to severe illnesses, autoimmune disorders, liver problems, or bile duct obstructions. In addition, newborns often present with symptoms of yellow jaundice but do not have major underlying health problems.

Bilirubin forms in the body when old red blood cells are broken down, a process that occurs on a daily basis. When a blood cell expires, it is separated into individual chemical components. The chemicals that form the yellow-pigmented bilirubin are normally processed by the liver, converted to bile, and excreted into the intestines. Yellow jaundice results when bilirubin fails to make it to the intestine and instead builds up in the bloodstream.

Buildups can be due to increased rates of red blood cell breakdown, a problem with liver metabolism, or insufficient drainage of processed bilirubin. Many different conditions can cause too many blood cells to die at once, including genetic hemoglobin disorders, autoimmune disorders, and serious bacterial and viral infections. The liver may be unable to process bilirubin due to alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis, or progressive liver cancer.

Inflammation or blockages in the ducts leading from the liver to the intestines can also result in yellow jaundice. Common causes include pancreatitis, gallstones, gallbladder cancer, or a congenital defect that obstructs the bile ducts. In some cases, jaundice is idiopathic, meaning that a clear cause cannot be determined.

Yellow jaundice itself is not normally treated. Doctors focus treatment efforts on eliminating the underlying cause of bilirubin buildup in the body. A patient may need to take medications to clear up a bacterial or viral infection or undergo surgery to repair or transplant a damaged liver. Surgery may also be necessary if a bile duct blockage is responsible for symptoms. In most cases, yellow jaundice disappears over the course of a few days once the underlying problem is corrected.

Yellow jaundice is a very common occurrence in young infants. Most of the time, yellow skin and eyes are the result of the liver not quite reaching full maturity by the time of birth. No immediate or aggressive treatment is needed in most cases, and babies develop normal color within a few days or weeks. It is still important, however, for medical professionals to test for potential causes of neonatal jaundice to make sure the appropriate treatment is available in serious circumstances.

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